China’s population could start shrinking in 8 years

Image: Reuters/Jason Lee
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It’s been over three years since China officially ended its decades-long one-child policy. But more and more experts are sounding the alarm that the move was too little, too late, to reverse China’s demographic decline—and consequently an economic one.

The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), a prominent state-run think tank in Beijing, is the latest to issue a dire warning over the country’s graying future. In a report (link in Chinese) released yesterday (Jan. 3), the CASS said that in the worst-case scenario, if China’s fertility rate—the average number of children a woman is expected to have during her childbearing years—remains at the current level of about 1.6, its population could start to shrink as soon as 2027. It could even fall to the 1990 level of 1.172 billion people by 2065.

“For the Chinese population, the most important demographic event in the first half of the 21st century is without a doubt the arrival of the era of negative population growth,” said CASS in the report, noting that while the country once enjoyed an “infinite supply of labor that powered its rapid economic growth,” by 2050 its working population will shrink by 200 million people.

China’s current population is about 1.42 billion. The latest population figures for 2018 are due to be released later this month.

CASS’s report comes as a US-based Chinese academic suggests that China’s population actually already started shrinking last year, with the number of live births falling by 2.5 million from the year before. Yi Fuxian, a senior scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, wrote in the South China Morning Post that China’s population crisis would be even worse than Japan’s—and last year told a conference in Beijing China had already passed the mantle of most populous country to India. China’s National Health and Family Planning Commission predicted in early 2017 that the country’s population would peak in 2030.

China did experience a spike in the number of newborns in the year after it ended the one-child policy in 2015 to allow people to have two children. But the number promptly fell back again in 2017. Estimates by various demographers (paywall) reported in Chinese media put the number of live births in 2018 at less than 15 million to 17 million, compared with 17.23 million in 2017.

Despite loosening its population controls, women in China haven’t been flocking to have more babies for a multitude of reasons (paywall). Like other societies that are becoming wealthier, more and more women, particularly in urban areas, are either putting off having children, only having one, or not having any at all. And for many women, the prospect of being burdened with taking care of the family once they are married and have children is one that they want to put off or avoid entirely, in a society where such duties are typically assigned to females in the family. Furthermore, the population of women of reproductive age is declining in China as a result of its long-running birth-control policy.

There are signs that China is ready to further loosen its restrictions on childbirth, underlining the leadership’s sense of anxiety over the country’s low birthrate. Last year, state newspaper People’s Daily published a piece headlined “Giving birth is not only a family issue but a national matter,” urging provinces to roll out policies to encourage people to have more babies. The central government in March also shut down the commission charged with implementing birth-control policies, often associated with forced abortions and sterilization.

And for further evidence of where China’s population policy is heading, in August China’s national post office unveiled a postage stamp that showed a pig family with three piglets, which some read as a signal that the country could soon lift all limits on the number of children.